An Interview With Keith Mathison (pt. 2)
This is part two of an interview with Keith Mathison. Click here to read part one.
If you could study under any churchman in history who would it be and why?
John Owen. Owen was perhaps the most brilliant English-speaking theologian of the past five-hundred years, but he was not content to deal with theology only in the abstract. He was also deeply concerned with the Christian’s growth in grace. Owen was about the mind and the heart.
If you could have a one-hour discussion with any living person in all the world who would it be and why?
Major Dick Winters (portrayed in the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers). When I saw Band of Brothers for the first time, I was very moved by the interviews with the soldiers who served under Major Winters. Their own actions were extraordinarily heroic, but their respect for Winters’ leadership brings several of them to tears in these interviews. I was also very impressed by the interviews with Winters himself. In one interview, he quotes a passage from a letter he received from a Sergeant Mike Ranney: “‘I cherish the memories of a question my grandson asked me the other day when he said, Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?’ Grandpa said ‘No…but I served in a company of heroes….’”
What counsel has proven to be most helpful in your life?
My father always encouraged me to do my absolute best with whatever I was doing. It did not matter whether it was mowing the yard or taking classes at school. If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.
What is one piece of advice you can offer the up and coming generation of seminarians?
Do not let the Bible become a mere object. Remember that it is the very Word of God. When you spend semester after semester dissecting every detail of the Hebrew and Greek text, it is easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees.
What is one piece of advice you can offer the up and coming generation of Christian writers?
Read John Newton’s letter “On Controversy.” Then read it again.
What are three characteristics you look for in a particular church where you would be a member?
- Deliberate focus on the One whom we worship rather than the ones who worship.
- Preaching, prayer, and singing that are biblical.
- People who love God and their neighbors.
What word of admonition and word of encouragement do pastors most need to hear?
It would take a man far wiser than myself to know what they most need to hear. I can share, however, what I would like them to hear. My experience in churches over the last twenty years gives me reason to believe that many pastors tend to forget that even believers need to hear the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, as often as they gather together. I’m not speaking about altar calls or evangelistic appeals. I’m speaking about the good news that believers have forgiveness of sins. I’m speaking about the good news that believers are justified and that the ground of our justification is not our own good works, our church attendance, our giving, our witnessing, our praying. The ground of our justification is the perfect righteousness and merit of Christ, which is imputed to us. Even as Christians we have a tendency to fall into a Pelagian mindset. And week after week of “bootstrap” sermons contributes to that mentality and subtly causes us to trust in our own good works. On the other hand, week after week of “berating” sermons usually tells us something we already know full well - namely, how utterly wicked and sinful we are. Obviously, sermons have to fit the congregation and the circumstances. There are those in every congregation who are not sufficiently impressed with the sinfulness of sin - particularly their favorite one. But once this issue (the law) is dealt with, the remedy (the gospel) needs to be clearly expressed. We need to be constantly reminded that it is by grace that we have been saved, that if we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, that the ground of our justification is Christ’s righteousness, not our own. As far as an encouraging word, I would remind the vast majority of pastors who faithfully serve in small churches, who will never publish a book or speak at a conference, that the church has spread around the world because of God’s use of men like them.
What word of admonition and word of encouragement do laypeople most need to hear?
I do not believe most laypeople have any idea how much work their pastor does. There are people who think that the pastor works an hour or two on Sunday and that’s about it. The schedule of the faithful pastors I know is more like 24/7. They are on call all of the time, and most are underpaid. Many parishioners have entirely unrealistic expectations about how many things one man can do. I would strongly encourage laypeople to refrain from criticizing their pastor and to pray for him instead.
What is the greatest doctrinal threat facing the church today?
I don’t know that I can single out one major threat. Every point of orthodox Christianity seems to be under attack from one angle or another somewhere in the world today. Not that it ever stopped, but we do seem to be witnessing in the U.S. a resurgence of prominent attacks on the doctrine of Scripture.
What is the greatest ecclesiastical threat facing the church today?
Again, it depends on where you are in the world. Christians in Iran face different threats than those in China, and both face different threats from those in the United States or Europe. Speaking only of the United States, where do you even begin? The books outlining the problems with preaching, with the sacraments, and with worship more broadly considered continue to roll off the presses daily. We have preaching that focuses on anything but Christ and Him crucified, hymns that are little more than insipid teenybopper love songs to Jesus treating Him as if He were a high school crush, neglect and or blasphemous perversion of the sacraments (Google “Clown Eucharist” for one of the more extreme examples). Many of us, very apparently, do not really believe in the God who revealed Himself in Scripture as one who takes worship very seriously.
What is the greatest threat today regarding the believer’s spiritual maturity?
Probably pride and hypocrisy. These destroyed the scribes and Pharisees. These destroyed the Roman Catholic Church. These can destroy any individual or institution.
In one sentence, what does it mean to be a Christian?
A Christian is one who trusts in and follows Jesus to the end.
What are some of your daily/weekly routines that you find helpful in your life and ministry?
Pillow fighting with my little boy every night before his bedtime.
What would you say are the most important lessons you have learned in the last decade of your life as it pertains to your ministry?
I already mentioned John Newton’s letter “On Controversy” twice in responses to questions above. He teaches a number of things in that letter that have profoundly influenced my writing ministry. I write a lot on subjects that are inherently controversial (e.g. eschatology). Newton encourages writers on such topics to think about those they are opposing in their books, about those who are reading their books, and about their own hearts. He observes how easy it is to cause spiritual harm to others and to ourselves in the midst of controversial writing. It would take too much space to go into all of the details, so again I encourage people to find this letter online and read it. Suffice it to say that these lessons have encouraged me to think more carefully about my writing.
Looking back on your life if you could go back and do something differently what would it be?
On a serious note, I wouldn’t wait until my senior year of high school to read the Bible for the first time. On a less serious note, I definitely wouldn’t watch the Exorcist as a twelve year old while home alone. I certainly wouldn’t have tried to swim across a flooded and debris-strewn bayou after a record setting flood.
If there were one thing you would like the church to understand about your life and ministry what would it be?
I’ve always seen my calling as analogous to those who supply ammunition to the men on the front lines. I’m trying to provide helpful tools for those who are in the trenches, those doing the really hard work.
Considering that everyone leaves a legacy from his life, what do you want to be your legacy in the church after you go to be with the Lord?
I hope people will say that he loved the Lord, he loved the Lord’s people, and he loved his family.